CO2 Levels at Mauna Loa Are Approaching 400 ppm

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are measured at a number of different places around the world. One of the primary locations is atop the extinct volcano Mauna Loa on the island of Hawaii. This very remote location allows for a pristine atmosphere to sample, resulting in very good measurements. The level of CO2 in the atmosphere has been climbing on a continuous basis since the measurements were first taken in the the 1950s by Charles David Keeling. A plot of these results is now known as a Keeling curve and presents a characteristic saw-tooth pattern that results from seasonal changes in the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.

Mauna Loa CO2

The saw-tooth pattern is a result of the fact that CO2 levels drop in the summer when plants are awake to take the gas out of the atmosphere, but then rise in the winter when the plants go dormant. Last year the Mauna Loa CO2 measurements hit a milestone when they reached 400 parts per million (ppm), the highest ever recorded, at least so far. They have dropped over the summer, but they are now growing again. This is a plot of the last few years. Both the saw-tooth pattern and the rising trend can be easily seen here.

CO2 Trend for Mauna Loa

NOAA reports that the CO2 level in February 2013 was 396.80 ppm. The level for February 2014 was 398.03 ppm. I think the data shows it is inevitable that we will top 400 ppm this year.

Not that 400 ppm is so much more dangerous than 398 ppm. But, it illustrates the trend and how little we are doing to stop it. Since they started taking the measurements in 1958 at Mauna Loa, CO2 levels have risen approximately 25%. And, that is just the increase since 1958. There was an additional amount of increase before Keeling began taking measurements.

That data also shows the rate of increase is itself increasing. The average rate of increase over the 56 years of data is .45% per year. But, the rate of increase over the last 4 years is at .51% per year. So, not only is the problem bad, its getting worse.

The Danger of a Single Climate Change Threshold

Climate change is frequently associated with some threshold that scientists refer to. For instance, a common threshold is a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature over the pre-industrial level, which is cited as the threshold for dangerous changes in the climate. I have always had problems with these thresholds because they give the impression that the danger is way down the road and isn’t anything we need to worry about today. That is a completely false impression to give. The changes are already happening and just because there are stages that won’t occur until after the threshold doesn’t mean we can’t suffer from some changes right now.

An analogy would be declaring bankruptcy. You don’t just wake up one morning and find your finances have so completely fallen apart you need to seek protection with the court. No, things were falling apart for quite some time, getting progressively worse. At first, things weren’t bad. Maybe you noticed that you had less and less spare money after paying the bills, but you were still OK. Then, more and more things happened. Maybe you were turned down for credit when you applied for it. Maybe your credit card was turned down at the restaurant. At first, it was once a month. Then, it was every week. Finally, it was every day. Then, you found out you didn’t have enough money in your paycheck to pay the bills, not to mention buy groceries. How were you going to feed the kids? That is when you sit down and wonder, “How did I get in this mess?”

That is the situation with climate change. Things have started out slowly. A little warming, maybe a few more severe storms than we use to have. Over time, more and more things happen. Mountain snow gets less and less leading to drier months in the summer. More and more crops fail due to heat or are destroyed in more frequent severe storms. You go to the grocery store and are stunned to see the price of food. Droughts occur more often and last longer. Reservoirs that use to be full of water are now full of weeds. When it does rain it comes down so fast that the area is flooded, washing everything away. You notice your electric bill in the summer is going through the roof because you have to run the air conditioner so much. The list goes on, but it is still manageable. We haven’t reached the crisis point yet.

But, some day, we will reach that crisis point. When we do, we will realize that we saw it coming for years and didn’t do anything about it. We will all sit down and wonder, “How did we get in this mess?”

That is the danger with the thresholds. We need to educate the public that it isn’t some switch that will be flipped some day. Instead, it is a gradual ratcheting up of the consequences of our actions and the ratchet will continue to get tighter until we take responsibility for our actions and do something about it.

This is something I have fought with for years now. So many deniers just want to say that we don’t need to do anything because even the scientists say it is years down the road. So, it was with interest that I read a paper today about that very issue. “The difficult, the dangerous, and the catastrophic: Managing the spectrum of climate risks,” by Amy L Leurs and Leonard S Sklar addresses this very issue and they discuss many of the same issues I just did.
But, they propose an alternative approach. 
In their scenario they use two individuals with different viewpoints concerning a number of events that occur as a result of global warming. The plot of the two individuals’ viewpoints is presented below.
Climate risk space. Conceptual map of climate risk perceptions held by multiple stakeholders. Risks vary across a spectrum of severity and time scale over which impacts may be realized with increasing global temperature. Two hypothetical stakeholders (red and blue) may value impacts differently (vertical position) and perceive impact likelihood differently (box-line thickness). Four possible combinations are illustrated.
Once we have the changes, there are three things we can do: mitigate, adapt or suffer. That leads to this plot:
Risk management quadrants. Conceptual map of options for managing climate risks. Four distinct quadrants are defined by inherent limits to mitigation (vertical, solid line) and adaptation (horizontal, dashed line). Grey bands represent uncertainty. The size of the suffering quadrant will depend on the extent (arrows) to which the full potential of mitigation and adaptation are realized by climate policies.
Events will plot a certain way, illustrating the current risk. Then, those events will be replotted over time, reflecting the changing situation. They conclude by stating, 
We argue that the notion of a single, global threshold of dangerous climate change, has outlived its usefulness as a focus for the climate discourse. In its place, we propose a new climate risk management framework that incorporates the inherent limits to mitigation and adaptation, and links scientific risk assessment with social values and risk perceptions. This risk management quadrants framework overcomes the problems with the dangerous threshold by restructuring the climate challenge around minimizing collective suffering, rather than averting a distant catastrophe.
I agree with their argument completely. We need to change the way we do business on this issue to make it clear to the public that we are not discussing changes that won’t happen in our life times. These are things that are going on right now and are affecting everyone on the planet. I don’t know if their proposal is the right way to do it, but it sounds interesting and is certainly a good start.

2014 Arctic Sea Ice Maximum has Passed

It isn’t official yet, but it will be soon. The maximum extent of Arctic sea ice passed in the last week or two. Take a look at these two figures. The first is the daily Arctic sea ice extent as plotted by the National Snow and Ice Data Center. The second is the surface temperature in the Arctic region and was obtained from the Polar Portal. We can see from the first plot that the amount of ice extent is decreasing. Fluctuations are normal and expected, but the second figure shows that the surface temperature of the ice along the fringes is above freezing, so no new ice will be forming.

Source: NSIDC
Source: Polar Portal

Unfortunately, it looks like bad news for the Arctic sea ice this year. There is a long melt season ahead of us, so nothing is for certain. However, we are starting off badly. The level of sea ice this year is significantly below the 2012 level. This is important for two reasons. The summer of 2012 led to the lowest level of Arctic sea ice ever recorded, and this level was much lower than anything measured before. The second reason the 2014 levels are significant is because there was a large rebound of Arctic sea ice last year – a 60% rebound. Many people have been hoping this rebound would lead to increased levels of ice going into the future and slow down the climate change effects occurring in the Arctic region. However, even with the big 60% rebound, we see the extent levels for this year are starting out much lower than in recent years.

Hopefully, the melt rate will be slow this summer and we won’t see a recurrence of 2012, but I don’t feel good about the chances.

ExxonMobil and Climate Change

ExxonMobil has agreed to release by the end of March a report detailing how climate change could affect its business. Many people are hailing this as an important achievement. But, without knowing what is in the report I have to be skeptical. Based on ExxonMobil’s history, I expect a report that says little to nothing.

ExxonMobil has provided funding to climate change deniers in the past. They claim they no longer do so, but evidence suggests otherwise. One prime example of how the fossil fuel industry in general funds misinformation is Dr. Willie Soon, an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Institution that is taking large amounts of funding from various fossil fuel entities. He recently stated that he has received funding from ExxonMobile in the past, but that ExxonMobile will no longer fund him. He does not give a date on when that funding stopped. However, he goes on to say he is still receiving funding from the American Petroleum Institute. API, as it is known, is the largest U.S. trade association for the oil and natural gas industry. One of the companies funding it is ExxonMobil. So, if ExxonMobil is funding API, and API is funding climate change deniers, isn’t ExxonMobil still funding climate change deniers? It seems to me that the company is just finding a way to launder the money, so to speak.

Then, take a look at the ExxonMobil webpage where they state,

Rising greenhouse-gas emissions pose significant risks to society and ecosystems. Since most of these emissions are energy-related, any integrated approach to meeting the world’s growing energy needs over the coming decades must incorporate strategies to address the risk of climate change.

That sounds very promising. But, further reading shows it to be meaningless because they also state,

Effective strategies must include putting policies in place that start the world on a path to reduce emissions while recognizing that addressing GHG emissions is one among other important world priorities, such as economic development, poverty eradication and public health.

I particularly find interesting how they state,

… near-term objectives should include the following:


  • supporting climate research to help inform the ongoing policy response. 

But, then they say this,

Strategies should promote fundamental shifts toward energy-efficient technologies and practices across the economy, and the more prominent use of fuels with lower carbon intensity — such as natural gas, nuclear energy and renewable fuels — within the overall energy mix. These actions already are making headway in many countries, including the United States. U.S. emissions of energy-related CO2 are reaching a plateau and are expected to begin declining soon. By 2030, U.S. CO2 emissions are expected to be about 15 percent lower than in 2005.

Industry and governments should pursue an integrated set of solutions that include developing new energy supplies, increasing efficiency and advancing energy technologies. For example, new technologies will allow more energy-efficient homes, vehicles and businesses. In 2030, improved efficiency will not only have curbed energy demand significantly, but also reduced related CO2 emissions by approximately 17 billion metric tons.

Throughout the world, policymakers are considering a variety of legislative and regulatory options to influence technology development and consumer choice to affect GHG emissions. If policymakers do move to impose a cost on carbon, we believe that a carbon tax would be a more effective policy option to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions than alternatives such as cap-and-trade. And to ensure revenues raised from such a tax are indeed directed to investment, and to assist those on lower incomes who spend a higher proportion of their income on energy, a carbon tax should be offset by tax reductions in other areas to become revenue neutral for government. It is rare that a business lends its support to new taxes. But in this case, given the risk-management challenges we face and the policy alternatives under consideration, it is our judgment that a carbon tax is a preferred course of public policy action versus cap and trade approaches.

This is more than meaningless political talk. There is some substance to it, particularly when they advocate a carbon tax. Is this a step in the right direction? Or, are they just protecting themselves from blame? Based on their past and current behavior, I tend to believe this is merely a smoke screen put up to protect themselves. But, I will be willing to revise that opinion if they show they are serious.

However, the current situation, reading their statements and looking at their actions makes me think that they have learned their lessons from the tobacco industry. They are not going to come right out and deny climate change because they don’t want to be held liable for misleading anyone. But, they will make meaningless, political statements and use proxies to fund alternative science in an effort to “inform the ongoing policy response.”

2014 EPA Report on U.S. Greenhose Gas Emissions – Second Look

I have been busy reading the EPA’s Draft Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990 – 2012 which was released this past February and I am finding it to be a really great document on the subject. Granted, they do not even consider anything other than greenhouse gases are causing global warming, but there is still a huge amount of information for anyone, including climate change deniers. It is not a cozy little read, so you don’t want to snuggle up in bed with this document and a glass of wine. But, if you need to find some details on climate change and greenhouse gases, this would be a good place to start.

Chapter 1 in the introduction and includes details on how the report was collected and organized. It also has details on which gases are considered to be greenhouse gases and how they act in the atmosphere, even their lifetimes and CO2 equivalents. For instance, the gas CF4 is 6,500 times as effective as a greenhouse gas as CO2 and will stay in the atmosphere for over 50,000 years. Another gas, SF6, will last only 3,200 years, but is 23,900 times as effective as CO2. Here’s another one, we emit almost as much CO2 from cars as we do from power plants, 1512 Tg CO2 Eq for power plants versus 1470 for cars.

As a scientist, I just love lots of nice numbers like this. Data is what makes the scientific world go round.

Surge in Arctic Sea Ice

Data on the National Snow and Ice Data Center website shows that the amount of Arctic sea ice has been surging lately. The plot below shows the amount of ice as of March 21, the first full day after the North Pole’s one and only sunrise. This plot shows the amount of ice has gone up by about 500,000 square kilometers in the last two weeks. This is very welcome news.
Credit: NSIDC

However, I have to wonder if these data were correct in the first place. I find it surprising that there should be such a surge this late in the season. And, coincidentally, this surge occurred at the same time the 2014 IceBridge campaign began. IceBridge is an airborne survey of the sea ice using P-3s flying out of various locations such as Fairbanks, Alaska and Thule, Greenland. It provides very valuable data and is critical for maintaining a continuous record between U.S. ice surveying satellites. Unfortunately, planes being what they are, these flights are limited by weather and seasons.

If we examine the ice temperature we see that it is rapidly warming. Of course, once the temperature reaches the melting point new ice will no longer form and existing ice will begin to melt. This plot, from the Polar Portal, shows the surface temperature for the Arctic region on March 22.

Credit: Polar Portal

This plot shows the sea ice extent. You can compare the two to see what the ice temperature is as opposed to the surface temperature of the open water.

Credit: Polar Portal

It is pretty clear that the regions at the edge of the ice cover is at, or near, the melting point. The ice extent may not be at the maximum for this year, but should be very close. This all makes me a little skeptical of the ice data for the winter.

I can’t prove it, but I think this data may show that we were not able to get enough data during the winter to make as good of an estimate on the ice extent as we would like. Now that Spring has come to the Arctic region and there is sunlight, data from IceBridge and other programs is providing a more complete, more accurate picture. This would mean the surge we have seen the last couple of weeks was not a surge in the amount of ice present, but a surge in the accuracy of our data.

Either way, the situation, while better than before, is still not good. The ice extent, even with the increased level of reported extent, is way below the baseline average. Hopefully, this is not a harbinger of the summer to come.

Belize and Coral Bleaching

I took off for nearly a week in Belize to do some scuba diving. If you are a diver I highly recommend you go to Belize. I have been diving for 40 years and this was some of the best diving I have ever done. It was truly magnificent and I wasn’t even in the best regions for diving. If you’re not into diving then I still recommend Belize. The beaches were nice, the weather was great and the people were wonderfully friendly. There is plenty to do there besides scuba diving. It was also a little weird to be in a Central American country and walk into a place filled with Hispanics and everyone there spoke perfect English. I sometimes felt an urge to launch into my Spanish just to be reminded that the native language there is English.

But, there is always trouble, even in Paradise. And, I saw plenty of evidence of trouble in Belize. No, I’m not talking about drug cartels or communist insurgencies. I’m talking about bleached coral.The good news is that bleached coral is not dead coral. The bad news is that bleached coral is stressed coral and it is more susceptible to things that can kill it.

What is coral bleaching? Coral bleaching occurs when something stresses coral and causes it to expel the algae that lives within it, causing the coral to go completely white. There are many things that can cause the coral to stress and result in bleaching, but the number one way is when the water gets too warm. This is a result of climate change and we are seeing more and more coral bleaching.

When I talked to the dive guide about it I learned he was very knowledgeable about it. He also had been tracking it for many years and he told that there were good years and bad years. Sometimes, the bleaching was all over the place, just to have it go away a year or two later. But, he told me it was something he did not see at all when he was a young man and that it was getting more and more widespread over time.

The people I was diving with all wore wet suits. I wore just a shorts and a shirt to keep the backpack from chaffing my skin. They all asked me why I didn’t wear a wet suit. I pointed out how the water temperature was over 80 degrees were we diving, even 100 feet down, and we were exercising the whole time. Staying warm wasn’t the problem, cooling down was.When I spoke to our dive guide he confirmed the water was getting warmer by a noticeable amount. He told me that thirty years ago, I would not have been very comfortable diving without a wet suit.

The danger in all of this is that the corals are essential parts of the environment. Coral reefs provide protection from waves for the shore line as well as an enormous amount of biodiversity. Stressing the reefs can lead to widespread coral death and a collapse of the reef, along with the biodiversity and protection they provide. Mapping of coral reefs reveals their health is declining. However, the collapse of coral reefs does not have to happen. There are steps we can take to save them.

Even on vacation, 100 feet below the surface, I still can’t get away from the effects of climate change. Which, of course, means that you can’t either.